Words with Pictures: 18 Documentaries about Writers

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Most creative types are a documentarian’s dream. Musicians have hours of live concert footage, actors have dozens of movies in the can, and artists have lots of pretty pictures to film. But writers? Writers can be a real pain. Unless they’re Stan Lee, they’re generally not bringing a natural visual element to the table. Still, the filmmakers behind these documentaries managed to spin 40-minute or 240-minute yarns about wordsmiths from all types of genres. They probably deserve a book dedication for that, but for now, they’ll have to settle for a film credit.

1. Margaret Atwood: Once in August (1984)

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This National Film Board of Canada production can feel a bit like a wildlife documentary. It drops you into Margaret Atwood’s woodsy family vacation spot with filmmaker Michael Rubbo as your guide. Just like any decent wildlife expert, Rubbo provides frequent narration about his curious subject and even discusses how best to draw her out with his co-writer in between interviews. He never quite cracks Atwood, seemingly to her delight, but it’s interesting to see her in this time frame, still a year away from her most famous novel (The Handmaid’s Tale), a full 16 away from her Man Booker Prize (for The Blind Assassin), and nearly three decades away from being Twitter best friends with Rob Delaney.


2. Worn Out with Desire to Write (1985)

Unless you’re an out-and-out Francophile, you might be behind on your Marguerite Duras. This hour-long film is a good introduction. It begins in Vietnam, where Duras spent her childhood, and ends back in her cozy Parisian living room, with her discussing the ending of her (at the time) recent bestseller, The Lover.


3. The Ten-Year Lunch (1987)

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For some people, the Algonquin Round Table has an even more mythic status than the one in Camelot. The literary salon of writers like Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Harold Ross and Robert Benchley met for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel every day through the Roaring Twenties. This Oscar-winning look at the famed circle covers its forays into theater, feminism and free love, and even animates a few of the groups’ more famous quips. But by the end, it’s realized what the members did by 1930: this was just a bunch of brilliant people farting around, delaying their careers and responsibilities for as long as humanly possible.


4. The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1987)

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Buckle in, Bukowski fanatics, because this compilation of 50+ interviews with the author is a whopping four hours long. For the most part, filmmaker Barbet Schroeder decided to just set up a shot and let Bukowski go—and it results in some engrossing conversations. That said, a lot of it is uncomfortable. It takes Bukowski all of two minutes to casually reference rape, and you’ll see him abuse his wife in one especially horrifying scene. But Schroeder doesn’t sugarcoat his subject: he wants his audience to see these monstrous moments.


5. The Word, the Image, and the Gun (1991)

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Well, this is a weird one. It’s ostensibly about Don DeLillo’s “dangerous fiction,” but actually about the Kennedy assassination and conspiracy. Plus Don DeLillo, sort of. Judge for yourself.


6. Breakfast with Hunter (2003)

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You have to give Hunter S. Thompson one thing: he knows how to make an entrance. In the first few seconds of Breakfast with Hunter, the gonzo journalist pulls up to the curb waving a cigarette and a blow-up sex doll, which he promptly throws into the street. From there, it gets just as weird as you’d expect. This documentary isn’t interested in delving into HST’s childhood or personal life so much as it is in showcasing his grandstanding (about Nixon, DUI laws, film adaptations of his work) and bizarre whims (ambushing Jann Wenner with a stolen fire extinguisher is one of them). If you come expecting brunch action, you’ll be disappointed. But if you come hoping for some choice smoke detector impressions, you’ll be set.

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